Japan may give planes to Manila for sea patrols

Japan may give planes to Manila for sea patrols

REUTERS

Japan wants to give planes to the Philippines that Manila could use for patrols in the South China Sea, a move that would deepen Tokyo’s security ties with the Southeast Asian nation most at odds with Beijing over the disputed waterway.

Japan is looking to offer three Beechcraft TC-90 King Air planes that could be fitted with basic surface and air surveillance radar, several sources said.

Talks within the Japanese government were preliminary and would need to overcome legal hurdles, sources said. Japan had yet to formally propose the planes as an alternative to more sophisticated Lockheed Martin P3-C aircraft that Manila wants to track Chinese submarine activity, they added.

Senior Philippine military and defense officials in Manila said they had not heard about the possible donation of the twin-turboprop TC-90 aircraft, which Japan uses to train military pilots.

“The Philippines doesn’t have enough aircraft to conduct regular patrols over the South China Sea,” one source in Japan said.

Donating aircraft, even small planes, would represent a military upgrade for the Philippines, which has only a handful of fixed-wing planes it can deploy on maritime patrols.

Tokyo has no claims in the South China Sea, but it is worried about Beijing’s construction of seven artificial islands in the waterway’s Spratly archipelago, which will extend Chinese military reach into sea lanes through which much of Japan’s ship-borne trade passes.

Concerns over the islands have dominated regional meetings in Kuala Lumpur in August 2011 between Southeast Asia and countries including Japan, China and the United States.

Equipping Manila with maritime-capable patrol planes would dovetail with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s more muscular security agenda but likely anger China, which has repeatedly accused Japan of interfering in the South China Sea dispute.

A spokesman for Japan’s Ministry of Defense said working level talks had been set up to explore possible cooperation in defense equipment with the Philippines but that there was no “concrete plan” to give Manila the TC-90s.

China’s Defense Ministry expressed concern about the plan.

“We hope that military cooperation between the relevant countries can benefit regional peace and stability, rather than the opposite,” it said in a statement.

POSSIBLE PRECEDENT

To allow what would be its first donation of equipment used by the Japanese military to another country, lawmakers would have to amend financial regulations that require second-hand government-owned equipment to be sold at fair market value, sources said.

That could open the way for Japan to give military equipment to other friendly nations in Southeast Asia.

The sources in Japan said radar to monitor surface activity and aircraft could be easily installed on the TC-90 planes if they were transferred. The U.S. military uses Beechcraft King Air 90s in transport roles and to train pilots.

While Manila still wants P3s that Tokyo will retire during the next several years, a senior Philippine military official said operating and maintaining such advanced surveillance aircraft and ground-based support equipment would be a challenge. The P3s, which have four turboprops, also use a lot of fuel.

Japan worries that the Philippine military might struggle to operate the aircraft’s equipment and be able to quickly analyze data collected, sources in Tokyo said.

The Philippines and Japan have conducted two naval exercises in and around the South China Sea in recent months.

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